The white-nose syndrome, a disease that has been decimating population of bats across North America, was first identified in New York State in 2006.

The disease, which is caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans, has already killed up to 6 million bats in 28 states across the country and Canada but much isn't yet known about this mysterious illness.

A group of researchers, however, appeared to have taken a step to unraveling the secrets of this mysterious disease. Richard Bennett, from Brown University, and colleagues have identified the debilitating weapon of the fungus responsible for the disease that scientists believe has spread from Europe.

Bennett and colleagues have identified an enzyme known as Destructin-1 that causes damage to the tissues of the wings and noses of bats infected by the disease.

The researchers were able to identify this enzyme by looking at dozens of proteins that are secreted by the fungus.  The fungus penetrates the bodies of hibernating bats, which have reduced immune function, and the injuries wake up the bats. The animals then use up their fat reserves too soon causing them to starve to death.

By identifying this enzyme, the researchers may have potentially identified a cure, chymostatin, a type of inhibitor drug commonly used for treating individuals with AIDS and hepatitis.

After testing the drug on lab-grown tissues that were infected with the fungus, the researchers found that the inhibitor reduced the ability of the fungus to destroy collagen by 77 percent.

"This study suggests that proteases may help in infection and so addition of protease inhibitors could block degradation and invasion of bat tissues by the fungus," Bennett said.

The researchers said that they want to try to inhibit the fungus not just in lab preparation but in real bats albeit they have acknowledged that there is still more work that needs to be done.

 "I don't envision giving drugs to bats, but there may be a clever way to do something," said Giselle Knudsen, from the University of California, San Francisco, who identified the protein that was secreted by the fungi. "It's such a dire prediction, we have to do something. Even if it's awkward and silly, I think someone clever will think of a way to perhaps spray a bat cave with some sort of antifungal agent."

The findings were described in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Photo: Gilles San Martin | Flickr 

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